Sabrina Hightower is one of tens of thousands of Volusia County residents whose pasts are strangling their futures.
Even though voters passed the landmark Amendment 4, restoring the right of ex-felons to vote, and the unemployment rate in Volusia County has fallen to 3.1 percent, the lack of jobs available in West Volusia for people with criminal records is one of the main problems confronting efforts to revitalize Spring Hill.
Denial of jobs to ex-felons is a topic that comes up constantly in meetings and at community gatherings. Every day, felons sit in the Spring Hill Resource Center at 901 S. Adelle Ave. in DeLand to stay out of trouble.
“If I had to pick the top three priorities for Spring Hill, that would definitely be on the list,” Resource Center Administrator Shilretha Dixon said before a job-training seminar put on at the center May 21 by CareerSource Flagler Volusia.
“They’re our family here. In every city, every corner, every nook, you’ll have to deal with people with criminal backgrounds,” Dixon said. “If they come here for help, they’re reaching out.”
“When you’ve been told no so many times, to still come for help is something wonderful,” Resource Center Administrative Assistant Wanda Raulerson said.
Among those attending the job training was Sabrina Hightower.
Hightower, 38, has applied for dozens of jobs in the past two years. They never call her back. The only steady gig she has is seasonal: Every year around Christmas, she earns minimum wage as a bell ringer for the Salvation Army.
Instead of working at a paid job, Hightower spends her days taking care of her mother, her children and her grandchildren.
She also volunteers at the Spring Hill Resource Center, and delivers food and fliers in the neighborhood, announcing Resource Center events, like credit workshops, or HIV testing, or the May 21 job training. She helps out wherever she can.
“I have goals and dreams — I want to be a normal person,” Hightower said. “I want to start my own business. I want to help the community.”
She added, “I want to live like everyone else. The system makes me out to look like a criminal, and I’m not. I’m a good person. It’s hurtful. It’s rough.”
If someone wants to change his life, will the system let him?
Hightower was born in 1980 in Spring Hill. The first 20 or so years of her life cover the decades when crime in the Southwest DeLand community ballooned to alarming proportions, eventually leading the city to take action with help from the federal grant program Weed and Seed.
At age 12, Hightower was told that her father, whom she barely remembers, had been beaten to death in state prison, where he was serving time for armed robbery.
Her uncles Charles Montgomery and Richard Montgomery were described in news reports written about their sentencings as having “gripped the Spring Hill area with fear” and “terrorized Spring Hill since the 1980s.” Both men are serving life in prison.
In 1994, Sabrina was 14. That year, she dropped out of ninth grade.
A year later, at age 15, she would give birth to her first child, a daughter. By age 18, she was caring for that daughter and an infant son, while living with her mother and her mother's boyfriend, with whom she did not get along.
“I had to fight, to fight for my mom and my kids,” she said.
Fighting soon landed her in trouble with the police. A 1999 arrest for throwing a brick at a car locked her up for 29 days, her first charge. A year later, she was arrested three more times for aggravated battery. Even though all four charges were never prosecuted, she still spent 63 days in jail 1999 and 2000.
It was more than enough to result in Hightower losing custody of her children. A relative took care of them for a little while, but ended up sending them back to the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services.
And, unknowingly, Hightower had signed away custody of her children forever.
“The HRS [Health and Rehabilitative Services, predecessor to DCF] lady came and made me sign this piece of paper. She told me to sign this, or I would lose every kid I ever had,” Hightower said. “Back then, I didn’t know how to fight.”
Without any legal assistance, without any resources, and with an eighth-grade education, Hightower didn’t know she had options.
“I didn’t understand. They took advantage of me. They told my mom and my kids I was a deadbeat, a crackhead,” Hightower said.
As adults, Hightower’s children would come back to her after years in the system. Her son, 21, lives with her now.
While her son and daughter were in the system, Hightower was, too. From 2002 to 2016, she was arrested at least 13 more times.
Four of the 13 charges — disorderly conduct, aggravated battery, possession of cocaine and trespassing — took, and she spent a handful of months in jail. The rest of the charges were dismissed for lack of evidence.
Up until about five years ago, Hightower spent her days at watering holes, houses where people gathered to drink, do drugs and gamble. She was raped, beaten with a metal bat, bitten in the face, and stomped so hard in the stomach she almost died of a burst appendix. She got in fights.
The farthest from DeLand Hightower has ever traveled is Daytona Beach and Sanford.
She was rounded up with her family and questioned extensively in a murder case in 2002, and charged with possession of cocaine, while investigators tore through the family’s apartment. The case, the murder of Terrell Barkley, has never been solved.
Hightower tried to tell the investigators she saw Barkley’s car on the morning of his death, and that if they looked they would see she had been in court on the day he was murdered.
“The police don’t listen to me,” she said. “They never believe me. They’d just throw me away like they always throw me away.”
She was questioned again in 2013, when the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office’s cold-case unit took up the case. Even after telling investigators everything she knew, Hightower said, they thought she was lying.
The constant suspicion of the police took its toll. Her distrust of law enforcement meant that when she was beaten on the streets, she never reported it.
Today, her wrists still show marks from too-tight handcuffs.
At the Resource Center in Spring Hill, for one of the first times in her life, she found people in positions of authority who talked to her like she was a real person, who laid out her options and tried to help her.
“When I go up there, it frees me from the pain and suffering,” Hightower said.
A few years ago, she prayed to God and asked for help, and God sent her a sign, she said. With an unexpected windfall of funds, she bought a truck, and started a business doing lawn care, and scrapping for metal.
She abandoned the places she used to hang out, and avoided situations that could get her in trouble. Burned by her past mistakes, she now keeps meticulous records.
Hightower is watching the circumstances that derailed her life so long ago play out again.
Because Hightower lost custody of her own young children when she was barely 18, when her daughter lost custody of her children earlier this month, DCF told Hightower she could not care for her grandchildren.
Not even her son, a 21-year-old without a criminal record, can look after the grandchildren, because Hightower lives in the house. This despite the fact that Hightower has sole custody of her two younger children, ages 12 and 7, who live with her, and despite the fact that she had been baby-sitting her grandchildren almost every weekend and some weeknights.
Her grandchildren are in danger of getting caught in the system, like her eldest kids were. Her eldest daughter, furious that she was caught in the byzantine and brutal world of group homes, is furious at Hightower.
Hightower’s landlord recently sent a letter raising her rent by 63 percent, starting next month. It’s a big blow to a family with limited means.
The home’s air conditioner is an older unit that causes the electric bill to rise by almost $500 a month, so the family hasn’t used it in almost a year.
If they don’t pay the rent increase, Sabrina, her mother, and her children, ages 21, 12 and 7, could be evicted.
On top of all that, a self-styled vigilante follows Hightower whenever he sees her, videotaping her and calling her a criminal.
She confronted the man last year and was charged with battery when she smacked his phone out of his hand. She was also charged with possession of cocaine and cannabis.
She was convicted and released under community control, a form of probation that means Hightower can leave the house only for job training or to apply for work.
The man still posts videos of Hightower and updates about her case on his Facebook page. He posted the name and cellphone number of her probation officer.
Hightower tried to sign up for a landscaping class at the Resource Center, to get her state certification before the May 10 deadline, but when she went, someone called her probation officer and reported that she had left home.
Even though actively seeking a job is allowed under the terms of her probation, fighting to prove what she is doing isn’t worth it, she said. She has to stay out of trouble, and she doesn’t trust the police.
“I can’t get anywhere. I can’t save my grandbabies. I can’t do anything if I can’t get a job. What am I gonna do? I have to go back to the streets. Drug users can get rehab; why can’t I? Where is my chance?” she said.
“I’m so strong. I know, I know in my heart that it will get better," she said. "I'm going to be okay. I’m going to make myself be okay, cause no one else is.”
HOPE FOR A CHANCE
On May 20, the DeLand City Commission approved a contract to use $10,000 in grant funds to provide a job fair at the annual To Unite Rebuild and Network (TURN) festival in September. The city will work with CareerSource.
“We hope to have, at a minimum, two businesses that are at least open to hiring ex-convicts,” Dixon said. “It affects whether we have a safe community, and affects the quality of life for the residents.”